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Worldwide, religious freedom is deteriorating. A world is a difficult thing to summarize, but the trend shows that repression of religious minorities is widespread in countries with large populations, such as China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Sudan, and Nigeria, and that religion is increasingly a key element of modern wars in the Balkans, Israel, Chechnya, and Kashmir.

While overall the situation is worse, however, there is also good news. Latin America has become one of the most religiously free areas in the world. And, except for the former Yugoslavia, the countries of Eastern Europe have also become largely free. One great story of the last quarter century is the victory of freedom in the traditionally Catholic world. There are also many free countries in Africa, especially in the south, while several smaller Asian countries are also free. Nevertheless, the dominant pattern in the world is the increasing political influence of religion coupled with increasing religious repression.

Religious persecution, meaning violence in which the religion of the persecuted or the persecutor is a factor, affects all religious groups. Christians and animists in Sudan, Baha’is in Iran, Ahmadiyas in Pakistan, Buddhists in Tibet, and Falun Gong in China are the most intensely persecuted, while Christians are the most widely persecuted group. But there is no group in the world that does not suffer because of its beliefs. All religions, whether large, such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism, or small, such as Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witness, or Judaism, suffer to some degree. In many cases these attacks come from their own religious group. Thus Shiite Muslims in Pakistan and Afghan­istan suffer persecution and even death from some dominant Sunni groups.

Religious freedom is also not confined to any one area or continent. There are relatively free countries in every continent and of every religious background. Perhaps surprisingly, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, South Africa, Botswana, Mali, and Namibia are freer than France and Belgium. There are now absolutely no grounds for thinking that religious freedom is an exclusively Western desire or achievement.

Religious freedom varies depending on the historical religion of the country. This is complex, since current regimes may reflect comparatively little of a country’s religious background. China, North Korea, and Vietnam have a largely Buddhist background, but current religious repression comes from self“proclaimed atheistic materialists. Turkey has an Islamic background but the present secular government aggressively represses peaceful Muslim expression. Thirty years ago many traditionally Christian countries were under Communist repression. Despite this variety, the overall patterns can be illuminating.

Historically Christian countries, with the notable exception of Cuba, Belarus, and Serbia, are now nearly all religiously free. Within Christianity, Protestantism tends to score higher than Catholicism and both higher than Orthodoxy. Other religiously free countries include Israel and countries of largely Buddhist background, including Japan, Mongolia, South Korea, Thailand, and Taiwan. This suggests that a Buddhist tradition can be a good foundation for religious freedom.

The most striking recent change has been in traditionally Hindu countries, notably India. India has a strong history of religious freedom but has recently voted into power a party promoting an intolerant Hinduism, thereby removing a country harboring nearly a fifth of the world’s people from the list of nations that are religiously free.

Historically Islamic countries form the large majority of the unfree regimes. There may soon be improvement since Indonesia, with the world’s largest Muslim population, is in a painful transition to democracy while Nigeria, about half Muslim, may also establish itself as a democracy. However, both countries are currently unsettled, and their move to democracy is marked by large-scale regional religious violence.

Policy elites tend to overlook the religious motivations of foreign regimes, letting their secularism prevent them from even seeing, much less understanding, the role of religion in human life. For example, at the end of 1997 the former executive editor of the New York Times , A. M. Rosenthal, confessed, “Early this year I realized that in decades of reporting, writing, or assigning stories on human rights, I rarely touched on one of the most important. Political human rights, legal, civil, and press rights, emphatically often; but the right to worship where and how God or conscience leads, almost never.”

This myopia can have painful consequences. The CIA refused to examine the beliefs and attitudes of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s followers in Iran before they took power, claiming it would be mere “sociology,” intelligence-speak for irrelevant academic verbiage. Parallel tales can be told of Vietnam, Bosnia, Lebanon, the Philippines, Nicaragua, India, Israel, Sudan, and Indonesia.

This neglect often comes from redefining religion as “ethnicity,” a tendency to which Americans are particularly prone. Distinguished diplomat Chester Crocker’s otherwise excellent lecture to the Foreign Policy Research Institute on “How to Think about Ethnic Conflict” described even the Northern Ireland and India-Pakistan conflicts as “ethnic,” even though the sides share ethnicity, and are divided by religion. “Ethnic cleansing” is the new term for religious repression all over the world, thanks to depictions of the former Yugoslavia wherein war between Orthodox, Catholics, and Muslims was routinely described as “ethnic.”

Another mistake is to assimilate religious disputes to the political categories of Western Enlightenment culture, as though this constituted the common opinion of reasonable humankind, or at least the common opinion of Americans. Thus, Islamic and Hindu militants are often described as “right-wing.” But what is a “right-wing” or “left-wing” view of plans to build a Hindu temple on the site of the Babri mosque, or the place of the Temple Mount and al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem? Neither has anything to do with categories of left and right, and each situation can be understood only in light of its deep-seated religious context.

When ethnicity fails to subsume religion, a common alternative is to call it “fundamentalist,” a catchall term for any manifestation of intense religious fervor. Such religious militancy is often treated as the sublimation of drives that can really be explained by poverty, economic change, or the stresses of modernity. Of course, these can play a role in religious expression; no part of human life is sealed off from any other. But all too often what we encounter is a priori methodological commitment to treat religion as secondary, as an evanescent and derivative phenomenon that can be explained, but never used to explain.

Taking religion seriously in international affairs can illuminate conflicts of various kinds. It is worth noting that most wars in the last fifty years have occurred on the margins of the traditional religions. The Middle East, the southern Sahara, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and South Asia are where Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism intersect. These conflicts are not usually explicitly religious wars. But since religion shapes culture, people at these boundaries have different histories and different views of human life, and are thus more likely to oppose one another.

I am not suggesting that religion, independent of other cultural, ethnic, economic, political, or strategic elements, is the only or the key factor in explaining social behavior: societies are complex. But I am saying that it is simply absurd to examine a political order without attending to the role of religion.

One reason why religion is frequently associated with social unrest is that “globalization” or “westernization” is penetrating deeply into traditional cultures. Traditional believers in Japan or Java did not in the past wonder about who they were. But now, through new communications and commodities, local identity cannot simply be taken for granted, and, so, needs to be consciously asserted.

It is also significant that the leaders of these societies are less likely than their immediate postwar predecessors to have been shaped by contact with and education in former colonizing societies. Recent generations of political elites in traditional societies have most often grown up within their country and profess less need to adopt Western ways.

Both these trends are exacerbated by the collapse of communism, which eliminated the only major alternative to globalization. Consequently those distressed by the dominant directions of the world now look to their own country’s traditions, which of course are predominantly religious traditions.

One result of these trends is the growth of religious nationalism, whether heartfelt or contrived, wherein countries are defined increasingly by their religious inheritance. This has typified the conflicts between Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims. It is endemic in India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, while, to acquire legitimacy, the Burmese junta masquerades as Buddhist. The Chinese government inveighs against “foreign” religions, while other regimes in the region celebrate so-called “Asian values.”

Within the Islamic world, this religious nationalism interweaves with pan-Islamic or pan-Arab motifs. In Egypt, Afghanistan, and Malaysia, the focus is more on the particular country, while for most terrorists loyalty is to the whole Islamic world. This pan-Islamicism is rapidly becoming a major factor in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and underlies most of the terrorism in Indonesia.

Despite the claims of their proponents, these trends are not repristinations of previous religious patterns. In traditional societies there was little need to assert or defend a religious identity, which is one reason that some of the most religiously free Muslim societies are monarchies such as Jordan and Morocco. But in the modern world, with its democratic jostlings and communication networks, religious identities are challenged and, hence, religious leaders must rally their supporters. The result is that belief becomes more like ideology and the faithful become more like a movement.

Some policy analysts in the U.S. prefer to play down issues of religious freedom because they recognize that religious issues are often intractable. Compromises over religion are much harder to negotiate than deals over land or water. Religious issues are not named for fear that their mere mention conjures them into existence. 

However, religious conflict and religious repression will not go away simply because our foreign policy elites refuse to speak of it. The United States can only address such conflict if it clearly and unsentimentally acknowledges it. Religious freedom is historically the first freedom in the growth of human rights and often has more to do with the growth of democracy than does a direct focus on political activity itself. Integrating religious issues and concerns into a coherent policy is extremely difficult, of course. While all human rights pressures make realists nervous, religion carries the added burden of touching on very deep-seated commitments. But America’s historic concern for freedom will not be sustained without a more informed and urgent appreciation of religious freedom.

Paul Marshall is the author and editor of many books, including the best-selling Their Blood Cries Out. He is Senior Fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom, Freedom House, Washington, D.C., and the General Editor of its Religious Freedom in the World: A Global Report on Freedom and Persecution (Broadman and Holman, 2000).

Image by The U.S. National Archives licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.